Of Woman Born, by Adrienne Rich

These essays were first published in 1976; the 1986 edition I read included footnotes updating some of the issues. I first read this book in the late 70’s when I had two toddlers and was involved with the Women’s Movement. Already one of my favorite poets, Adrienne Rich seemed to be speaking directly to me in these essays about motherhood.

In rereading it now, I was afraid the book would seem dated—thirty years after its original publication and much has changed about women’s roles in society—but it still seemed fresh and even relevant. Yes, thankfully, we have more choices today about how we give birth and how we spend our lives.

Also, for many, parenting itself has changed; children are overscheduled with activities and overseen by “helicopter parents” who constantly hover around them, unlike when I was a child and a young mother when children ran free most of the time, supervised lightly if at all. Most days my mother had no idea where I was or what I was doing, and I had only slightly more insight into my children’s activities.

But the dynamics of motherhood do not seem to me to have changed. It doesn’t seem to matter which generation you talk to. I know some new graduates struggling to carve out independent lives, and a few elderly people still complaining about childhood mistreatment by their mothers. I even see middle-aged men and women engaged in sibling rivalry for a mother’s love.

Rich’s perceptive essays lay bare some of what is going on here, exploring literature and history to understand the dynamics of this potent bond. In this season, with so many celebrations about the birth of a child, it’s hard not to think about the mother, and the relationship of the mother and son.

Freshwater Road, by Denise Nicholas

In this first novel, a college student from Detroit goes to Mississippi to help register voters during Freedom Summer (1964 for those who’ve lost count). Nicholas brings to life the culture of racism in that time and place. Yes, there is plenty of racism today, but it was different then, more overt and acceptable. She also gives us a brilliant yet unromanticised rendering of the African-American community in Pineyville, the small town where Celeste spends the summer. Even the minor characters are fully drawn. We see the dissensions among them as well as the way they support each other.

I had forgotten what it was like back then. It seems incredible now that when I first went to school, I got in trouble for drinking out of the “colored” fountain (I thought the water would be blue and purple and green). Incredible that communities like Pineyville could decide on their own who could vote and what tests they had to pass before being allowed to register. That a man, a minister, could be beaten by the sheriff for daring to walk into the courthouse by the front door.

It is no easy thing to write about situations that outrage us. How to describe appalling injustices without ranting? How to relate the unbelievable so that we believe it? Nicholas uses three techniques, and manages them so effectively that it’s hard to believe this is her first novel.

First, she presents a rich portrait of Celeste’s life—teaching the children in Freedom School, complaining about having to use an outhouse, falling in love with another volunteer—and then drops in the moments of horror. Also, we experience those injustices through Celeste’s eyes and her genuine, yet mixed emotions: surprise, confusion, fear, anger. Finally, Nicholas anchors Celeste’s story with real incidents we all remember: the Birmingham church bombing, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the discovery of the bodies of the three murdered volunteers (James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman).

There were several times when I was so upset that I had to set the book aside, but then couldn’t resist picking it up again. Has it really been forty-two years? So much has changed since then. Not enough, but still, a lot.

One Last Breath, by Stephen Booth

Another mystery, this one set in Derbyshire where a prisoner has just been released after serving the mandatory thirteen years of his life sentence. Unrepentant, Mansell Quinn turns his back on the plans his probation officer has made and heads home. His ex-wife and old mates are still living in a cluster of villages—Edendale, Aston, Castleton, Ashbourne—within the area policed by DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry. I enjoyed the previous book in this series, Blind to the Bones especially the accuracy of his portrayal of morris dancers, both border morris and Cotswold. I found this book equally full of local color and fueled by a complex puzzle. I could have used a map, though, to help me keep clear the names of the villages and their relationship to each other.

In the opening chapter, Ben Cooper discovers that he is claustrophobic. He’s volunteered to help out with a cave rescue simulation in Peak Cavern, a tourist spot with many caves too dangerous for tourists. One of my brothers and his partner teach cave rescue. I haven’t run this book by them, but they did tell me that Nevada Barr’s Blind Descent (much of which was based on a real rescue in Lechiguilla in which my brother participated) was very accurate. Ben’s experience certainly felt real to me.

The way a phobia can come on suddenly in adulthood is interesting. For me it was acrophobia. After a childhood of climbing trees and walking along cliffs, I found myself at 36 at the top of Durham Cathedral, utterly unable to walk back down the stairs. Just looking down them made me feel faint. I was beginning to think I would have to spend the rest of my life up there, when a young boy—maybe seven or eight years old—came puffing up the stairs in his shorts and blazer. After letting him take a good look around, I asked if he would help me down the stairs, which he did, politely leading me by the hand while I kept my eyes closed.

I’m no expert, but it seems to me that at least one factor in this adult-onset phobia is that as adults we know all too well the risks we are taking. We’ve lost that childish sense of invulnerability. I believe it was Martina Navratilova (one of my idols) who mentioned in an interview that she no longer played all-out like the young tennis wonders because she was too conscious of the possibility of injury. That strategy has paid off for her by enabling her to continue competing long after the age when others retire. However, she hasn’t lost any of her competitive spirit, as I saw when she played in Pam Shriver’s Tennis Challenge this week. Although they were just exhibition matches (to benefit children’s charities), Martina couldn’t seem to resist slamming a winner across the net or fussing with herself for missing a shot.

Well, it’s a long way from a cave in Derbyshire to a tennis match in Baltimore, but how to handle fear, how much to give in to it, how to weigh the risks against the rewards—something to think about.

The Transparent Feather, by BJ Appelgren

BJ is a friend of a friend who gave me a copy of her book a few weeks ago when a group of us met for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Shepherdstown, WV. Actually she traded it for a copy of my book of poetry. Her book is a refreshing memoir about visiting a woman in a nearby nursing home.

Berry Morgan is a writer, whose books Pursuit and The Mystic Adventures of Roxie Stoner both received Houghton Mifflin Litereary Fellowship Awards. She also wrote fiction for The New Yorker between 1966 and 1988. BJ helps Berry by transcribing a memoir and some stories that Berry dictates, while at the same time Berry becomes a mentor to BJ, teaching her to write.

Among other things, Berry keeps saying to BJ: “You’re trying to do too many things at once” and “I wish you would just write.” Between part-time jobs, volunteer work, and trying to start a series of classes, BJ is always busy.

Berry’s advice resonated with me. For one reason or another, many of my regular activities have been suspended for the last few weeks, and I have found myself writing much more. It has not so much been that I’ve had more time to write as that I’ve been better able to concentrate when I do sit down to work.

I mentioned Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled a few weeks ago. After finishing the book, I read a review of it in the London Review of Books where Frank Kermode compared the fractured and frantic narrative to the distractions that pull a writer one way and another. And not just a successful writer like Ishiguro, though of course fame brings additional distractions.

I’m not willing to give up my other activities permanently—some of them are part of my exercise regimen and others give me a chance to get away from the computer and socialise—but I can sharpen my focus. Set the to-do list aside. Stop trying to do too much. Especially this time of year when the calendar quickly fills up with holiday traditions, social occasions and other, er, entertainment options.